‘Rotuma is in my heart and my eyes’
10 May 2021
Rotuman artist Sofia Tekela-Smith reflects on Gasav Ne Fäeag Rotuạm Ta – Rotuman Language Week.
With only 800 Rotumans living in New Zealand, the Rotuman language is listed on the UNESCO List of Endangered Languages, with only 15,000 speakers in the world. We spoke to Rotuman artist Sofia Tekela-Smith about Rotuman Language and how this has informed her creative expression.
How does language and culture help form your artwork?
I’ve always been thankful I grew up in Rotuma with no running water or electricity, under the guidance of my ma'piag hani (grandmother) Mue Tekela, who taught me that the underside of the woven object is more important than the part that you see. Rotuma is in my heart and my eyes so everything I do hark back to this beautiful land. I made a series of necklaces using mother of pearl, based on the Rotuman Tefui, unique to Rotuma, a garland made from the spathes of the coconut shoots and sweet smelling moskoi (ylang ylang) and other fresh flowers and leaves as well as red pandanus kernels.
My first spoken language is a bit rusty these days though, but I’ve been practising Rotuman recently with my brother.
What is a phrase or proverb in the Rotuman language that speaks to you?
Noanoa la lol ta niu maf he (it is hard to sink a dry coconut) and ‘Hanua ma ‘on maf ka ma ‘on ‘al (the land has eyes and teeth) – meaning no one can take your land away from you because the spirit of your ancestors who belonged to the land will continue to look after the land and curse anyone who tries to take it but who does not rightfully trace bloodline to the land.
What is a memory of using the Rotuman language you’d like to share?
When I arrived back in Aotearoa, my mother forbade us to speak in Rotuman in front of my father apparently out of respect for him not understanding the language – he understood the naughty words though; this was difficult for me as I was only just learning the English language as a teenager.
How will you be celebrating Rotuman Language this week?
In an ideal world, I would be sitting on the floor laid with coconut fronds and banana leaves with a beautiful feast that just came out of the Koua (earth oven) lathered with a generous pouring of tahroro (fermented coconut sauce), eating delicious fekei made with coconut cream, starch and either 'a'ana (taro) or pari (banana) or ulu (breadfruit) while listening to the elders tell their stories. I will tune into 531pi to listen to the Rotuman programme late at night.
Who are some of your favourite Rotuman artists?
Ngaire Fuata who was the first Pasefika woman to get to number 1 on the music charts in New Zealand. David Eggleton, who was appointed New Zealand Poet Laureate in 2019, and Vilsoni Hereniko, academic and playwright.
For more information on activities or resources on Rotuman Language Week, check out the Ministry of Pacific Peoples website